By Julie Ritzer Ross
In the fall of 2012, Bill Barnhill turned a portion of his 1,500-acre farm in Baker, Fla., into a five-acre corn maze. The venture, executed under the umbrella of a partnership between Barnhill’s newly formed company, Baker-based Gum Creek Entertainment, and the Crestview Rotary Club, of which he is a member, was a success, attracting slightly more than 6,000 visitors over the five-week period prior to Halloween.
But the entrepreneur wasn’t ready to rest on his laurels. Rather, for Halloween 2013, he set aside 20 to 30 acres of the farm to create the Baker Corn Maze & Haunted Trail, a full-fledged attraction with Nightmare on the Old Spanish Trail, a haunted component, as its centerpiece. The haunted trail drew 1,500 visitors this past season, the seven-acre corn maze, built once again in tandem with, and as a fundraiser for, the Crestview Rotary Club, welcomed 7,000 visitors. Gross earnings, a percentage of which were donated to the Crestview Rotary Club, totaled approximately $75,000.
Barnhill’s family has owned the land on which the farm is situated since 1859. They were initially loggers involved in the timber trade, but subsequently began growing hay, wheat and peanuts. Part of the farm is still leased out to other individuals who still grow these crops, while Barnhill devotes most of his time to the operation of Gum Creek Lodge, his Baker-based event venue.
Barnhill said the dearth of comprehensive Halloween attractions, coupled with a large target market for a haunt (for example, many teenagers, college students and young adults) provided the impetus to create a haunted trail. The Nightmare on the Old Spanish Trail concept, in particular, was deemed a “natural” because a transcontinental route known as the Old Spanish Trail really exists in the area. According to the American Roads magazine website, the Old Spanish trail “connects the old Spanish colonial towns of St. Augustine, Fla., on the Atlantic coast and San Diego on the Pacific. “Not to be confused with the 19th-century cattle trail of the same name that wound from Santa Fe to Los Angeles,” the highway winds through some of America’s best tourist destinations, including St. Augustine; Jacksonville, Fla.; Mobile, Ala.; New Orleans, San Antonio, Tombstone, Ariz.; Tucson and San Diego. It “largely follows what later became U.S. Highway 90 in the east and U.S. 80 in the west.”
To elicit community involvement and up the attendance ante, Barnhill opted to hold Nightmare on the Old Spanish Trail in partnership with the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office Posse, a group of select Okaloosa County citizens who assist the Sheriff’s Office on a voluntary basis. In March of 2013, he attended the TransWorld Halloween & Attractions Show to obtain some ideas for executing the theme, purchasing several props, among them a 250-pound, animatronic leaping wolf and a half-closed coffin from which a corpse protrudes, as well as masks, skeletons and skulls.
The legend of the haunted trail, as explained on the attraction’s website, holds that in 1559, Don Tristan DeLuna started the first settlement in Pensacola, which was soon wiped out by disease and attacks of the Creek Indians. 1n 1565, the settlement of St. Augustine began, and the Conquistadors continued their search for gold, treasures and El Dorado. They pressed west from the east coast of La Florida, resulting in the eventual development of the Old Spanish Trail.
Along the way, the settlers fought many battles with the Creek Indians and encountered many wild animals, including the wolf and the Florida skunk ape.
In the first part of the 17th century, the legend continues, some early settlers were caught in a battle between the Conquistadors and Creek Indians. Among those settlers were James and Betty Whacker. James was killed in the skirmish and was buried in a shallow grave. Betty grieved for him incessantly, digging up his bloody corpse (hence named Bloody Bones) following his burial and walking the woods with it thereafter.
“Attacks by wolves were frequent and ghastly; they ripped the stomach out of their prey, causing instant death,” the legend says. “The Skunk Ape was a bit different. Standing over 7 feet tall and over 300 pounds, it is recognized by its very strong skunk-like odor. It preyed on both deer and humans, ripping the stomach out, but eating only the liver.
“The Old Spanish Trail connected to Pensacola and eventually ran further west, becoming the main highway across West Florida. The search for treasure and battle with natives along the way continued. Spanish warriors uncovered treasure of varied kinds, and many secrets developed to protect their loot. Many are still hidden today, and ghosts still exist along the trail, protecting secrets and treasures.”
A Cast of Characters
Involving 20 to 22 actors each night, the haunted trail spanned 1,800 feet and touted a total of 12 vignettes. After encountering a crazed Betty Whacker mumbling to herself, visitors negotiate a dark maze, the Maze of Darkness, while dodging cobwebs and puffs of air from an air blaster. Other stops on the trail included a Conquistador and Indians Battle of the Bones involving arrows, skeletons and carnage; a tunnel in which actors grab at guests’ arms and legs; a bridge crawling with snakes and alligators; a “Bubba” scene starring a figure with a slit throat; an old house inhabited by the Skunk Ape and more. Special effects, ranging from fog machines to coffins that open and close by themselves, were present in abundance. So, too, were witches suspended from wires, corpses hanging from trees and more.
Beyond the Trail
In addition to the haunted trail, a haunted hayride traversing the trail, and the corn maze, the attraction included several daytime features designed to broaden its scope and appeal to younger members of the community. Notably, four corn cannons were installed on a spot adjacent to the corn maze. Guests were given ears of corn to place inside the barrel of each cannon. They were then challenged to use their cannon to shoot the corn into a nearby field, with the objective of hitting a fort that had been erected there as a target.
“The cannons were a big hit with visitors of all ages,” Barnhill reported.
Other components incorporated this past year encompassed a non-spooky hayride, an inflatable bounce house; a “kiddie train” pulled by a golf cart and a petting zoo with rabbits, chickens, ponies and a miniature donkey (mostly on loan from neighboring farms). Rounding out the roster were pony rides sponsored by Roping the Troops, a local Christian organization.
“It was really important to attract visitors who didn’t necessarily want to walk the trail and/or do the corn maze, and the train, the petting zoo and the pony rides were the perfect way to do that,” at a very reasonable cost, Barnhill said.
Meanwhile, although Barnhill knew most individuals would want the option of purchasing food and beverages during their visit, a desire to “keep things simple” spurred the decision to leave this aspect of the operation to outside concessionaires. One concessionaire offered non-alcoholic beverages; another, barbecued hamburgers, hot dogs and corn; and a third, funnel cakes.
Not surprisingly, Barnhill conceded, that expanding from the original corn maze concept to a full-blown, theatrical haunted attraction did bring its share of challenges. Building the infrastructure of the haunted trail topped the list. “Although many of the props were purchased, it took a lot of trial-and-error to figure out how to set them up,” he said. “We had to experiment with different scenes to see what would go where and how to (populate) them. For instance, did we want to put Betty Whacker at the beginning of the trail? What would the actors be doing in each scene? It required a lot of thought.”
So, too, did getting some props just right. As an example, giving many of the skeletons slated for inclusion in the scenery a properly grisly look necessitated wrapping them in thin plastic material. The latter was then “torched” with a heat gun, after which paint was applied to the surface.
Handling the actors, all of whom were volunteers and the majority of whom were teenagers engaged in extracurricular community service work, also presented obstacles. The younger players were dedicated and possessed talent, the latter having been proven through auditions held several weeks before opening day. However, Barnhill observed, their attention span was “not always up to par,” and they demonstrated a tendency to socialize among themselves at times rather than remain in character and interact with visitors as necessary. Positioning identically garbed volunteers from the Sheriff’s Posse at each scene minimized the distractions.
Next Up: More Spookiness
Based on this year’s success, Barnhill has no plans to radically alter the attraction for 2014. However, based on visitor feedback, plans for this coming fall encompass changing some of the scenes on the haunted trail to give them a different, albeit equally frightening, appearance. The nighttime hayride will be spookier in 2014 than it was in 2013. “It went over great this year, but making it even spookier will mean an even better hayride,” Barnhill concluded. “There’s always room for something new, but we have a keeper.”
New Scares that Will Crop Up at Farms in 2014
- Nightmare in the Country in Woodward, Okla., will feature a Pagani Mortuorum where visitors will learn that clowns do die, but they never go away.
- McCall’s Haunted Farm in Moriarty, N.M. will feature Zombie Hunt, an interactive ride during which visitors can shoot paintballs at live zombies.
- Indiana Fear Farm in Jamestown, Ind. will feature a Headless Horseman roaming the grounds, terrifying passengers on a 20-minute haunted hayride complete with explosions, monsters and stunt performances.